Thomas Tuchel is an animated figure on the touchline of most matches. Yet, even for a manager who once sweated through a baby blue puffer jacket, Chelsea’s coach outdid himself on Saturday afternoon.
Barely bound by the confines of his technical area, Tuchel seemed on the verge of popping a vein as he tortuously watched his side slip 13 points behind runaway league leaders Manchester City with a 1-0 defeat at the Etihad.
The repeated focus of much of the ire surrounding Chelsea in recent months has fallen on the broad shoulders of Romelu Lukaku.
In a match which was sparsely peppered with clear-cut chances for either team – such is the contrasting style but commensurate quality of each side’s defence – Lukaku was presented with, and squandered, Chelsea’s best openings.
Within the opening ten minutes, Lukaku threatened to exploit Pep Guardiola’s decision to leave Ruben Dias on the bench. Tossing John Stones to the turf with a swivel of his hips, Chelsea’s number nine made a rare foray into City’s defensive third. Yet, when faced with a sight of goal, tried to find an offside Hakim Ziyech.
Lukaku was similarly reluctant to pull the trigger in the opening exchanges of Chelsea’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at home to Tottenham at the start of January, breaking beyond the Spurs backline but playing a pass behind Kai Havertz on that occasion.
Chelsea failed to register a single shot in the first half against City, but did offer some threat on the break only to be repeatedly let down by the final, poorly weighted pass.
Tuchel carried his fury and frustration into the post-match interview, telling BT Sport: “We had eight or nine offensive transitions and we had zero touches in the box – that was a big problem today, offensive-wise. The performance of the front players was simply a lack of precision, a lack of timing and a lack of composure. You cannot think that you get a lot of chances, deliveries, on a level like this. We lost too many balls too easy and that’s why we have a number like this [zero touches in City’s box]. Of course, that was a big problem in our game today.”
Chelsea’s manager flew off his seat, punching the air with unadulterated rage 13 minutes into the contest. Ziyech was the source of this tantrum, delivering a leaden-footed pass that scuttled several metres ahead of Lukaku, gagging for a ball slid into the acres of space behind City’s backline following Chelsea’s intricate build up.
Naturally, the first defence whenever Lukaku comes in for criticism revolves around the lack of support provided by his teammates. While Ziyech and a painfully anonymous Christian Pulisic were just as culpable for Chelsea’s lack of cutting edge, Lukaku’s manager had clearly had enough of this particular argument.
“Sometimes he needs to do the service,” Tuchel countered. “I think he’s included in this. He had many ball losses without any pressure, and many ball losses in very promising circumstances. He had a huge chance so he’s included in this. Of course we want to serve him, but he’s part of the team and the performance up front – especially in first half – was, was…” Tuchel trailed off. “We can do much, much better and we need to do much better because we had a lot of transition chances in first half already.”
Mateo Kovacic provided one of the rare occasions when a teammate did break through City’s controlled structure, speeding onto a loose ball in midfield and skipping past Rodri. Lukaku scurried onto the pass but had his intentions perfectly predicted by Ederson who saved Chelsea’s biggest chance of the match shortly after the interval.
No player that started the game had fewer touches than Lukaku’s paltry 21. While many strikers thrive with little interaction in the build up, Lukaku was such a threat at Inter – where he was voted Serie A’s MVP as the Nerazzurri claimed last season’s Scudetto – when he picked up the ball deep and drove towards goal.
Fielded as the central striker of an underwhelming front three, it’s telling that Tuchel highlighted Lukaku’s numerous ‘ball losses’ as a key weakness on Saturday. Despite his bulky physique, Lukaku has rarely shown any fluency when tasked with predominantly playing with his back to goal.
The Belgian was hardly the only culpable figure in a defeat that effectively ends Chelsea’s title chances, but if Tuchel continually demands a type of player Lukaku has never been with any great success, everyone will remain thoroughly frustrated.